In Dennis Palumbo’s new novel, “Phantom Limb” (Poisoned Pen Press), a character walks into a therapist’s office and puts forth the following scenario: “I plan to kill myself at 7 o’clock tonight. Which means you have 50 minutes to talk me out of it.”
It sounds like a line from a television show or movie, especially given Palumbo’s background as a screenwriter for both mediums. But the origin of the scene was not at all pleasant for Palumbo, who is a licensed psychotherapist.
“It would be (comical),” Palumbo says. “Except it happened to me. … I had been a therapist for about a minute and a half, and a woman came in, who was about 55, and said, ‘I have the pills at home and I’m going to kill myself at 7 p.m. You have 50 minutes to talk me out of it.’ ”
Palumbo, who will visit Mystery Lover’s Bookshop in Oakmont on Sept. 20 to promote “Phantom Limb,” admits he was initially terrified but managed to convince the woman to schedule another appointment.
“If you can get them to come back, you’ve got a pretty good shot,” he says.
Palumbo, a native of Penn Hills, has lived in the greater Los Angeles area for 40 years. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he was a staff writer for the sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” and wrote the screenplay for the film “My Favorite Year.” “Phantom Limb” is his fourth crime novel featuring Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist based in Pittsburgh.
The title refers to the sensation that a missing arm, leg or other appendage is still attached to a body. That theme is woven into a book about one of Rinaldi’s patients, a former Playboy model and actress who is the wife of a rich businessman. When she’s kidnapped after an appointment with the psychologist (she’s the character who threatens to kill herself), Rinaldi becomes inextricably involved in solving the crime.
While Palumbo shares his character’s Italian heritage, Pittsburgh background and occupation, he’s admits Rinaldi can do things — such as solve crimes — beyond his scope of experience.
“But his point of view about therapy and the mental-health system comes from me,” Palumbo says. “One of the real treats about writing this series is I get to talk about the things I love, like the mental-health industry and Pittsburgh.”
Pittsburgh’s prominent role in “Phantom Limb” and the rest of Palumbo’s books might seem odd, given that he’s not lived in Western Pennsylvania since the 1970s. But that timespan and the distance from California to Pennsylvania have allowed Palumbo to see the city in a new light.
“(Pittsburgh) has a noir quality at night that I think has been unexplored, or unexploited,” he says. “I think the fact I no longer live there allows me to have this feeling. I’ve been in L.A. for 40 years and to me, writing about Los Angeles would be kind of boring. These are the streets I drive through every day. I don’t think it has the same resonance for me.”
What is so very L.A. is Palumbo’s clinical specialty: many of his patients have “creative issues.” Often, that’s just the tip of their Freudian icebergs.
“Most of my patients are writers and directors and producers and actors and set designers,” he says. “They often come in, presenting with writer’s block or procrastination or fear of failure or fear of rejection, garden-variety stuff. But those things are so connected to their personal lives. Within three weeks, we’re just doing regular psychotherapy.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.